Why we are the way we are – part II

A version of this appeared in Firstpost on Aug 20th:


A Faustian Bargain – Social Contracts, Climate Change and predictable tragedies

Last time we saw how our societal choices – building over water bodies, dumping rubbish in rivers and allowing slums to come up on river banks – join hands with climate change and makes the sting so much sharper. Indeed, some experts believe these societal choices have a greater role to play in our suffering than does global climate change. Dr. J. Srinivasan, Distinguished Scientist at Divecha Centre for Climate Change, IISC, says “Land use patterns and air pollution have greater impact on local  climate in India than the increase in greenhouse gases” .”

We are barking up the wrong tree if we think advising “Protect water bodies” or “Ensure tighter monitoring” will solve the issue. Important, loud voices have said it for years and nothing has happened. To understand why we need to look deeper. And that brings us to our social contract.

What is a/our social contract?

True Contracts tend to be implicit and unspoken, so and, as such, are tricky to pin down. But as in any relationship, a contract is the state of affairs that balances what we are willing to give and what we get. Philosophers explain it this way: individual citizens surrender certain rights (law enforcement, judgement, certain freedoms) to get something – protection and cheaper provision of services. Put another way, you give up your right to beat your erring neighbour to a pulp, and, in return, you get clean streets and a peaceful city to live in.

In theory.

To see it in practise, let us consider a story with three main characters.

A man carries a child as he wades through a waterlogged subway after heavy rains in Chennai

(Photo courtesy: Firstpost/Reuters)

A play with 3 heroes – setting the stage

Our first protagonist is an average middle class urban city dweller – call him Akash. Akash has recently finished college and has received an offer with an IT firm working in analytics. He drives to work and lives in a flat with three of his friends. He enjoys going to the movies. He is an asthmatic.

Akash pays his taxes (it’s deducted from his pay check every month, so he does not have much of a choice). He’s also amongst the 1.5% of Indian who do pay direct income tax. He also pays indirect tax – GST etc. – but that’s more bundled into whatever good or service he consumes, and arguably less visible. He pays registration fees for his car.

Akash never went to a public school. He has never and does not plan to go to a government hospital. He does not take public transport.

He does not receive any food from the public distribution system. He somewhat trusts that the FSSAI stamp on the food he buys makes it safe to eat, but he nurses his doubts.

He likes the peace the nation enjoys and is proud of the army. Last year, when floods devastated the city, he was rescued by the army. So, he is grateful to them.

He likes the fact that he has not been robbed/assaulted etc., so he is thankful to the police for that.

Akash has never voted. None of the candidates appeal to him. And, to be frank, he feels society does not do much for him. The politicians appear to be aware of this: He is not courted before elections. He is aware of his impotence while complaining about power cuts, water supply or waste on the roads. He’s quietly resentful of the waste, the smells, and the congestion, especially after a trip abroad made these even more glaring.

Enter Muniammal, our second protagonist. She is a 55-year-old woman who lives in a 10×10 illegal shanty on the banks of the Cooum in Chennai. She does not pay for her electricity. Her children went to the corporation school, for which she did not pay any tuition. When she is sick, she visits the government hospital which is free, in theory. She depends heavily on the 1-rupee ration rice for her sustenance.

People queue to collect drinking water from a municipal tanker at a flooded residential colony in Ahmedabad

(Photo courtesy: Firstpost/Reuters)

But Muniammal has little control over the quality of the services (or products) she receives. Indeed, she often needs to grease many palms to get what she is entitled to or what she needs to get away with: to the policeman to look the other way, to the ward boy at the hospital so the doctor will see her, to the ration shop for preferential access. In fact, when there was an assault on her daughter-in-law this past month, she could not get an FIR filed without her local councillor’s help.

The system, which is supposed to work for all citizens, is often broken for her. Raghuram Rajan, our former RBI governor, has been widely quoted in saying: “The tolerance for the venal politician is because he is the crutch that helps the poor and underprivileged navigate a system that gives them so little access”. But this “crutch” comes with a big caveat: Muniammal, the 55-year-old woman, cannot hope to command the attention, let alone the assistance, of the local councillor. Only Muniammal, who belongs to Caste A or Religion B, can. Especially if Caste A is a large, voting bloc. This means caste definitions and ethnic divisions need to be highlighted to command attention and delineated to create a unique power base. An interesting thought. And Muniammal gives her vote as her caste leader directs.

Now take Rajiv, our third actor. He’s a hot-shot heir of a large business family with interests in construction, steel and retail. Rajiv would not dream of taking public transportation in India, and would not venture near a government hospital or school. He does not even know where a ration shop is, or what he can get there. He has never seen his ration card. He wants the government to keep multi-brand retailers out of the country and he wants high import duties on steel. Thus far, he has got what he wants.

Building debris

(Photo courtesy: Firstpost/Reuters)

If we were to look at sheer numbers, the Muniammals of India overwhelm other two in numbers – this is important, we will come back to it in a bit.

There is something rotten in the state of Denmark…

What are the characteristics of such an equilibrium? What kind of social contract would manifest here?

The provision of services of the society needs to be broken, or at least flawed. Both Akash and Muniammal, for different reasons, cannot really influence the service quality they receive from the government.

Why? The incentives of the constituents, the vacancies within several essential departments, such as health and education, and the complete lack of competition. Consider this: I write as a chairperson of a government-aided school in rural India. For many transgressions – poor teaching, lack of knowledge, questionable conduct –corrective action is very very hard to take. More than 1880 primary health centres in the country lack a doctor. Moreover, the quality of the staff is not uniform. Government jobs pay a lot at lower levels – far more than a private sector equivalent. But as you go higher up, the pay differential shrinks and finally inverts. The Chairperson of a public-sector bank makes less than a junior banker in a private sector and laughably less than a chairperson of a private sector bank. Moreover, in many areas, there is little competition that such bodies face, so Akash cannot shift his custom to another and Muniammal cannot afford to do so. Little competition means the “badness” of the service can persist. Muniammal cannot command better service. She can influence the process only through her politician.

This is important because otherwise the politician loses his meaning to the Muniammals of the world. Would Muniammal go to him and become beholden if there was a qualified doctor who could be expected to help her out as a matter of course? Unlikely.

Add to this, a tremendously delayed judiciary process – we have more than 25 million pending cases as on date – which imbues the politician with the power of ad hoc decision making. Think of it this way: if someone beat up your son, and the case dragged on and on – wouldn’t it be simpler (and more gratifying) to approach the local politician for speedy street justice?

And lastly: data. Knowledge is power – as the saying goes, which maybe explains why departments are shrouded in relative opacity. Data needs to be unavailable, hard to access, or outdated. I have been trying to get station-wise data for a particular city in India – it turns out to be very expensive, patchy and what I have finally settled for – 0.25 x 0.25 gridded data is so inaccessible that is needs a lot of effort to make it usable. Contrast this with China (China!!) who has online air pollution data available for all their cities – even for an average citizen seated in India. This lack of data aids and abets the broken system. After all, you cannot check performance or fix a system without good data.

Answering our questions

With this as background, let us revisit the questions from the last article:

Why do we allow slums to creep up in flood plains?

Muniammal needs inexpensive housing close to where job opportunities are. It’s illegal, so the politician leans on the policeman and the judges to look the other way. Muniammal is grateful, and rewards him with her vote. And because she overwhelms the Akash’s in numbers, her writ prevails. The slums encroach on the river and reduce its carrying capacity. Of course, cheap housing cannot come with underground sewage, so the waste – both solid and human, find their way into the inviting river, further reducing the river’s carrying capacity.

Naturally, when it rains heavily, the river is more likely to flood.

In another city, with a different kind of contract, low-skilled workers like Muniammal would rely overwhelmingly on a cheap and efficient public transport to get them from their affordable housing to their place of work. The Rajivs of the world would like to believe this is a metro, which turns out to be an inadequate and expensive proposition for Muniammal. But the powers that be decided to go with Rajiv, hence the need for slums.

Moving onto question#2: Why do we dump construction debris into our rains and canals with impunity?

To answer this, let us come to Rajiv. He wants to rebuild the city – his way.

Naturally, that involves acquiring buildings on the cheap. He leans on his brother-in-law, the MP, to ensure other builders cannot buy building that easily in “his” part of town. He then breaks down the buildings. Carting the waste would add to costs, and why should he when the river lies so invitingly close. Who will stop him? Anyone who dares to will get transferred or worse. Milan Vaishnav writes a fascinating book on the link between builders and political houses, and the increasing criminality in politics. The data is chilling enough to reveal that cement prices go down just before elections, because builders divert funds to the campaign.

Rajiv’s first venture did so well, that he wanted to build the second one. The only problem is there is an old lake there. Earlier, the lake had farmers around it with water rights. But farmers have sold their land and moved as the city has developed. The corporation took some of it over, and the rest was too inviting for Rajiv to pass on. Not to worry, dump some earth and debris there, and there is a new site in place.

The unholy alliance between the Rajivs, who promote rule breaking in making a quick buck, and the Muniammals, who require rule breaking as a fiendish substitution for provision of good services, overwhelm the wishes of the Akashes of India. Moreover, the Muniammals vote, and very often, the Akash’s don’t.  This results in the trampling of our common goods – air, water – our environment, in short.

And because the politician – who gains his power from the broken system – is the one to fix it, we need to look at addressing the underlying equilibrium, and not merely spout platitudes.

There is a silver lining…

But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. Even the floods, the drought and the worsening climate.

As the frequency of floods increases, Muniammal ’s satisfaction with her housing is falling. It made sense when it was close to her place of work, and she was willing to put up with the sewage, and the lack of water. But when it floods every year, she loses what few possessions she has, and the relief doesn’t cover it all. Moreover, Muniammal’s son has done well, relatively speaking, and he does not want to live in a slum anymore. The vote bloc is beginning to crumble, and a new vote bloc, the “development” vote bloc is becoming viable.

Also, once in a way, the system throws up a hero – whether a bureaucrat or a vibrant politician, who wants to make a difference. There are recent examples in India – a bureaucrat who heads the irrigation department of a state, or one who ensured a public transportation project was completed in time, and under budget. The politician who revamped the department he was charged with, and delivered results. Typically, this happens when outsiders – either politicians or lateral entrants into the bureaucracy come about. They don’t benefit from the equilibrium, so they are happy to make the change. There are usually tell-tale signs of these heroes – the data will be flashed in front of you.

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that climate change throws in strong relief the fissures in our system. There are fewer and fewer places to hide. Our press has always been relatively free, and for all our faults, we are a ragingly opinionated and functioning democracy. Which means, the power is still in our hands.

This is good news. In the next part, let us understand how we can better wield it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s